Mindset Over Matter: Creating a new Community Paradigm

March 19, 2019   By Donna Hall CBE, Chair, NLGN (former CEO, Wigan Council)

Created in 2012 following riots in our inner cities, the Government’s Troubled Families Programme has received praise and criticism in equal measure over the last seven years. Created by the dynamic and straight-talking Dame Louise Casey, it has starkly divided opinion amongst policy makers and practitioners all over the UK.

The Troubled Families Programme has made an enormous difference to collective mindset in progressive councils. This mindset shift is more latterly gathering credibility and urgency nationally as councils, police, schools, the NHS, housing associations realise we can’t go on cutting without investing in real change and building strong, happy, healthy and socially connected communities.

Wigan’s Confident Families
In Wigan we renamed the Troubled Families programme our “Confident Families” programme and we enthusiastically embraced the principles as they chimed perfectly with our own. As with all our projects and programmes we tied them together rather than initiating another silo project, into an overarching simple and compelling social contract with residents – The Wigan Deal.

The timing for the launching of the Troubled Families Programme was good for us because since 2011 we had been designing and delivering the Wigan Deal – conceived as a completely different relationship between citizen and state. We had to strip £160 million from the council’s budget so we knew status quo wasn’t an option. Rather than cutting frontline services and putting up council tax every year, we were going to freeze it for six years as our part of The Deal. Council tax is a big proportion of people’s monthly income and freezing it in return for residents doing more recycling, taking better care of their own health, the local environment and looking out for neighbours resonated well with them. Satisfaction with the Council shot up by 59 per cent despite the fact we had lost over a half of our resources.

An asset-based approach was at the heart of The Deal, and we used a renowned anthropologist to help us design the approach. Put simply it was based entirely on the same overarching “mindset” principles as the Troubled Families Programme. It helped us to join the dots around people and place and cut through the complex proliferation of initiatives and departmental solutions – whether from the council or Government departments.

The key details of how we changed our relationship were:

  • Working person to person, not state official to unit of need. We needed a different conversation.
  • Asking ‘What are you good at? What does a good day look like for you? How can I help make that happen every day?’
  • Asking ‘What’s going on in your local neighbourhood that you would like to be a part of?’
  • One key worker would build a strong relationship based on shared trust and help navigate the complexity of public services. They will always see the best in someone no matter what.
  • Integrated place-based teams share information and proactively target support to those who need it most.
  • We stopped spending all our staff time and our money on processing people. Passing people around a system where we keep assessing and then referring people on to another agency who can deal with part of their problems. Hilary Cottam in her brilliant analysis of public policy “Radical Help” published last year provides practical examples of the waste we all have in our systems. The duplication. The pointless bureaucracy. The lack of timeliness. The confusion. The lack of a person-centred approach.
  • We trusted public servants to work with people not just do things to them. Leaders need to make it ok to test new approaches in integrated place-based teams.
  • We invested more in local community grassroots organisations – this is what will really help people and reduce demand for expensive, ineffective and clunky state solutions.
  • Listen really hard to families and to communities. They will make the right decisions about their own lives with the right support.

Eighty per cent of our collective public sector resources were spent on processing people; assessing their needs, evaluating how much a fix they should get through various differential thresholds for social care and finally referring them on to somebody else who can help.

With support through The Life Project and the Troubled Families Programme we turned that on its head and instead spent 80 per cent of our precious staff time on actually working intensively to help support families to be the best family they could be and only 20 per cent of our time on the necessary underpinning processes.

Practical examples of this approach include a woman and her children on a council estate in Wigan passed repeatedly around the criminal justice with over 20 interventions in 5 years. She was spinning on the centrifugal spot of a fragmented system based on need. Her life and that of her three children was going backwards and she was “costing us” £250,000 per year every year in multi-agency staff. Having a different conversation with her, building on the assets she and her family have has turned her life around. She has a job, her children are back at school and out of care and family mental is strong and getting stronger every day.

This approach spread across Greater Manchester and is now embodied in ten councils shared approach to Troubled Families as part of Andy Burnham’s Public Service Reform White Paper – a localised manifesto with Troubled Families mindset at its heart. Everyone is valued, everyone is special. Everyone is unique.

I’m really grateful to the Troubled Families team in MHCLG for helping to enact a seismic shift in the thinking of local government, criminal justice, housing and other agencies.

The Community Paradigm
An asset-based mindset seems to be on trend in certain circles now but the key for public service leaders, both political and managerial, is systematising this approach. It’s not another initiative, another project, another pilot or pathfinder with its own dedicated monitoring and project team and Prince Two evaluated monitoring regime. It’s just how we work. It’s in our DNA.

As Chair of the NLGN think tank I’m delighted to be able to spread the great work of our exciting and radical new “Community Paradigm” report which sets out the need for a radically different relationship with communities following the civic, the state and market paradigms applied to public service which are no longer sufficient to meet the tidal wave of demand from residents and the international reducing resource base.

The Community Paradigm builds on the philosophy of Troubled Families, asset-based working and takes it to the heart of all public policy making for the future. Shifting power and resources away from separately governed institutions such as the NHS, local government and the police and towards communities is an exciting legacy of Troubled Families. Unless we address the fundamental issue of unequal power relationships we will continue in a mindset of “learned helplessness” that Troubled Families was set up to address.

We need to turn this whole approach from a mindset followed by a few organisations to the way we all operate in UK public service as a default setting.

Our staff became public servants because they want to genuinely help people and improve communities, or to fill in forms and pass inspections without blame.

Let’s embrace Troubled Families and the community paradigm, the Deal, co-operative councils and a million and one other separate initiatives and systematise it as just what we do every day.

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